Well, it’s the 2nd largest city in the 2rd largest country that is solely in Europe.
After the Berlin Wall came down in 1989 and the USSR was dissolved 2 years later, Eastern Europe became readily accessible and runners particularly benefited from the easy travel to marathons in many countries. Just hop onto a budget airline and in less than 3 hours you could be in almost any part of Europe. Whereas the former Soviet states of the Balkans have become popular, many of the other former states have been explored much less. Ukraine has not benefited greatly from it change of status and of course it has suffered noticeable from the recent attentions of its former master. I must admit to my ignorance, I really did not understand what the USSR was until conflicts started to emerge in the former states over the past 10 years.
My initial plan had been to run the Kiev Marathon, but this year it has been moved from April to September; fortunately there was another one beginning with ‘K’ in April. Unfortunately Kharkiv (or Kharkov either is acceptable) is less than a marathon distance from the Russian border and over the past few months, particularly since the conflict escalated in Donetsk and after I had booked, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office have the following warning out “The FCO advise against all but essential travel to Kharkiv”. A car bomb in early March made up my wife’s mind, she would not be going. My decision was actually crucial to my project, because without this race there wasn’t another genuine ‘K’ marathon before the L M N O etc ones I already had booked. The Krakow Marathon just a week later is actually known as the Cracovia Marathon and although I had toyed with running it instead (I did register) I felt it wouldn’t be right. As the race date came closer and closer and no further incidents were reported I went with Eleanor Roosevelt’s mantra “Every day do something that scares you”.
I made the right choice, no hint of a problem while I was there, less automatic weapons were visible than in Jerusalem and it is so cheap. Even the race cost almost nothing, 200 Hryvnia = £6 and that included an excellent technical top (I am the only person in this country to have one!) a medal and a (basic) pasta party (which unsurprising didn’t have a gluten free option). Although the list of competitors shows four Brits, they didn’t embrace my mantra so I was the only one to run it. It did meet an American, Nelson Petersen, who was running but he was over to work not just run the race. Amazingly we did have a running friend in common, Roger Biggs who was the chairman and is now the president of the 100 Marathon Club
The expo, start and finish were all situated in Freedom Square (so big that planes used to land there during WW2) which was dominated by a huge statue of Lenin until it was pulled down by protesters in September 2014. Queen with Paul Rodgers play the first gig of their ‘Rock the Cosmos’ tour there is September 2008.
The 11.30 start of the race was my only real gripe with the event (it had started at 9.00 on the previous year). The sun rose into a clear blue sky 5 hours 36 min before the race started; the race website states “the temperature typically varies from 5°C to 13°C and is rarely above 18°C.” Well it did exceed 18°C, for the whole race and at 9.00pm the giant outdoor thermometer in the city centre was still showing 15°C. Although when running through the city streets the tall buildings did provide some shade much of the race running along long straight roads, many though areas of leafless tree with bunches of mistletoe visible and not the slightest shade; fortunately there were frequent sponge stations. The Dome of the Rock is probably best known landmark in the city of my previous marathon, Jerusalem, but Kharkiv has it’s own fair share of golden domed buildings. One of them,The Temple of the Holy Queen Tamara, was one of the very visible landmarks on the course, being in view for many km during long straight sections in the the north-eastern extreme of the course.
Getting near the end the was a short section through the funfair in Gorky Park with its famous Ferris wheel, this was the only part of the race where spectators had to be avoided.
Because so much of the race was away from built up areas support was sparse but where it was present they were very enthusiastic.
I again went with the 3:45 pacer, but I failed to stay with them over the last 10k, not because of any particular features of the course but mainly because the efforts on the Jerusalem hills 4 weeks earlier were still in my legs; at least I have 5 weeks before really challenging them again in Lima. I did still produce another sub 4 hour finish (3:57:32), something I did for the first time 50 weeks ago in Düsseldorf a few days after my birthday. During my 66th year I have run 8 marathons with a majority being under 4 hours. If things go as planned there should be another 10 in the next year
Of course one of the reasons we (all) run marathons is to be able drink without guilt afterwards and because of the ridiculously cheap prices Kharkiv is great for that.7.99 Hryvnia for a bottle is 24p. Also some of the beer available seems very marathon appropriate!
The only difficulty I really encountered was on the trip back. Two flights from Kharkiv to Kiev were cancelled,I ended up hanging around Kharkiv airport for many hours as flights were rebooked and I arrived back on Tuesday (my birthday) rather than Sunday. But I did get to watch a spectacular red sunrise over Russia on the eastern horizon.
So if you don’t want to run Paris or Brighton or Rotterdam or Vienna (where I am hoping to be next year) which were all on the same weekend you could do much worse than a Kharkiv adventure assuming it is still part of Ukraine.